This is flowering everywhere at the moment. Well, everywhere in the garrigue – sorry, I’m getting a bit Midi-centric. Its great banks of yellow flower-heads stand out as much as the deep green of its glossy leaves when all around is dry, papery and straw-like. Bupleurum is quite a big genus but this is the only species I’ve identified so far, perhaps because it’s so bushily obvious – it’s the only shrub species.
I’m using it as an introduction to wondering about the use of animals in plant names, and this one is a bit of a puzzle. ‘Bupleurum’ means ox flank (remember the ‘bu’ of bugloss, meaning ox tongue? Post of 11th May). Why should this be applied to this plant? No-one seems to know. My guess is that the great bushes might seem as big as the bodies of oxen. The leaves do look like hare’s ears – well, a bit.
This plant name belongs to a group which uses animal names in a descriptive way, often with a touch of affectionate whimsy: think of harebells and foxgloves. This seems most common with wild animals – when we get to Man’s best friends, the domesticated animals, the picture seems to change. A hierarchy emerges in which some animals appear much more equal than others. Near the top of the dung-heap, poultry gets off quite lightly: fat hen is a good salad, chickweed is a small flower which is pecked by chickens, henbane (see post for 4th August ) is a warning of poison.
Introducing a note of distaste, Geoffrey Grigson points out that in English the use of ‘horse ’in plant names ‘frequently indicates some coarse differentiating quality’ e.g. horse-mint, horseradish, which could be seen as admiration of the size and power of the horse. Horsetail is purely descriptive.
Rosa canina – dog rose
Then if you want to show that a plant is definitely second-rate, pick your closest cottage companion: a dog-rose is unworthy of the cottage garden, even in Latin (Rosa canina). Dog-violet and dog’s mercury both also take their names from the Latin versions (Viola and Mercurialis canina) because the violet was not scented and the mercury was thought not as medicinal as M.annua. The pretty blue Muscari comosum is called ail des chiens (dog garlic) in French, presumably because you just can’t make a good sauce with it. Wild asparagus is espargue de chin (dog asparagus) in Occitan, because judged second to the cultivated variety (though I like the wild spears better).
Muscari comosum – tassel hyacinth
But it could be worse – further down the pecking order from the pecking and the barking comes the grunting. Pig, sow or hog in a name usually mean fit only for swine: hogweed, sow thistle, pignut. I mentioned the other day(21st August) that ‘purslane’ may have come originally from a pork-related derogatory word. At first I thought this apparent disrespect for the animals on which peasant farmers depend was rather ungrateful, but I realise that there was a hierarchy in the subsistence economy of the rural household: what humans could eat, they ate. What was left went to the dogs and chickens. What could be foraged for free in the hills could go to the pigs. Nothing was wasted.
And the donkey – because yes, you can get lower than a hog . Perhaps because it’s a poor version of a horse, perhaps because they will eat anything, and especially in Occitan, the donkey gets the rawest deal. The thistles in the Cirsium genus are lo cardon d’ase in Occitan, and the Eryngium campestre (29th August)is pan blanc d’ase. Oddly, in Oc an aubergine is not something you’d find in an auberge, but a viet d’ase – a donkey’s penis. Ok, perhaps you’d find that at an auberge too – but maybe outside.
For all you need to know about the different styles of expressivity in Paris and in my village, I’ll give in full my favourite entry in the lexicon Las plantas , which gives plant names in French and Occitan:
algue microscopique: flottant à la surface des eaux stagnantes, genre diatomée. La mèrda de grapaud.
In plain English – toad shit.
Some animal music for you: first, Rufus Thomas and a remake of the original record (which I couldn’t find on video):
Now the poultry:
and the canines:
If anyone can think of a song about donkeys which is acceptable family viewing, let me know.